NASA’s 2017-2018 Software Catalog is Out

Need some help sizing your beyond-low-Earth-orbit vehicle? Request NASA’s BLAST software. Need to forecast the weather on Venus? That would be Venus-GRAM (global reference atmospheric model). Or maybe you just want to play around with the NASA Tensegrity Robotics Toolkit. (We do!) Then it’s a good thing that part of NASA’s public mandate is making their software available. And the 2017-2018 Software Catalog (PDF) has just been released.

Unfortunately, not everything that NASA does is open source, and a substantial fraction of the software suites are only available for code “to be used on behalf of the U.S. Government”. But still, it’s very cool that NASA is opening up as much of their libraries as they are. Where else are you going to get access to orbital debris engineering models or cutting-edge fluid dynamics modelers and solvers, for free?

We already mentioned this in the Links column, but we think it’s worth repeating because we could use your help. The catalog is 154 pages long, and we haven’t quite finished leaf through every page. If you see anything awesome inside, let us know in the comments. Do any of you already use NASA’s open-source software?

A Meteorite Gift Box

[Justin Cole] was looking for the perfect birthday gift from for his wife. After some pondering, the answer fell from the sky in the form of a meteorite. The problem was how to present it. They don’t exactly make meteorite gift boxes, so [Justin] decided to build one of his own design. The box has a Russian space age theme reflecting the meteorite’s country of origin. The theme also made it a perfect entry for Hackaday’s Sci-Fi contest.

The gift box started life as an old steel film reel box. Some of us may still have boxes like this in our basements, protecting old 8mm family movies. [Justin] modeled the box in Solidworks, then added in his custom modifications. An angled walnut platform forms the stage. In the center of the stage is a 3D printed cone. The meteorite itself sits on a platform in the middle of the cone. A magnet keeps the iron meteorite in place.

A Neopixel ring provides indirect lighting below the meteorite. The ring is controlled by an Arduino, which also drives a couple of vibration motors. The motors create a hum in time to the changing colors of the ring. The whole package creates a neat way to present a rock from space.

We really like that [Justin] didn’t go over the top with sound effects, smoke, or bright lights. More importantly, [Justin’s] wife loved it, and couldn’t wait to share a video of the box with her friends.

It’s not to late to get in on the Hackaday Sci-Fi contest action. You have until Monday evening to enter your own creation.

Growing Plants on Mars… on Earth

One of the biggest challenges of traveling to Mars is that it’s far away. That might seem obvious, but that comes with its own set of problems when compared to traveling to something relatively close like the Moon. The core issue is weight, and this becomes a big deal when you have to feed several astronauts for months or years. If food could be grown on Mars, however, this would make the trip easier to make. This is exactly the problem that [Clinton] is working on with his Martian terrarium, or “marsarium”.

The first task was to obtain some soil that would be a good analog of Martian soil. Obtaining the real thing was out of the question, as was getting similar dirt from Hawaii. [Clinton] decided to make his own by mixing various compounds from the hardware store in the appropriate amounts. From there he turned to creating the enclosure and filling it with the appropriate atmosphere. Various gas canisters controlled by gas solenoid valves mixed up the analog to Martian atmosphere: 96% dioxide, 2% argon, and 2% nitrogen. The entire experiment was controlled by an Intel Edison with custom circuits for all of the sensors and regulating equipment. Check out the appropriately dramatic video of the process after the break.

While the fern that [Clinton] planted did survive the 30-day experiment in the marsarium, it wasn’t doing too well. There’s an apparent lack of nitrogen in Martian soil which is crucial for plants to survive. Normally this is accomplished when another life form “fixes” nitrogen to the soil, but Mars probably doesn’t have any of that. Future experiments would need something that could do this for the other plants, but [Clinton] notes that he’ll need a larger marsarium for that. And, if you’re not interested in plants or Mars, there are some other interesting ramifications of nitrogen-fixing as well.

Continue reading “Growing Plants on Mars… on Earth”

Japanese ISS Supply Ship Dual-Purposed As Tether Experiment

When a rocket sends a capsule up with supplies for the International Space Station, they usually send a bunch of their trash back down with it, all of which burns up in the atmosphere on re-entry. But as long as you’ve got that (doomed) vehicle up there, you might as well do some science with it along the way. And that’s exactly what the Japanese Space Agency (JAXA) is doing with their Kounotori 6 supply ship that just left the ISS on Friday.

The experiment is with an electromagnetic tether that can be used to either turn electrical energy into kinetic or vice-versa. When you string a long conducting wire outwards from earth, the two ends pass through the earth’s magnetic field at different altitudes and thus pass through magnetic fields with different strengths, and an electrical potential is generated. In the KITE experiment (translated), a resistive load and an electron emitter on the supply ship are designed to burn up this electrical energy, lowering the ship’s kinetic energy, and dropping its orbit down to earth.
Continue reading “Japanese ISS Supply Ship Dual-Purposed As Tether Experiment”

The First Bug On Mars

Interplanetary probes were a constant in the tech news bulletins of the 1960s and 1970s. The Space Race was at its height, and alongside their manned flights the two superpowers sent unmanned missions throughout the Solar System. By the 1980s and early 1990s the Space Race had cooled down, the bean counters moved in, and aside from the spectacular images of the planets periodically arriving from the Voyager series of craft there were scant pickings for the deep space enthusiast.

The launch in late 1996 of the Mars Pathfinder mission with its Sojourner rover then was exciting news indeed. Before Spirit, the exceptionally long-lived Opportunity, and the relatively huge Curiosity rover (get a sense of scale from our recent tour of JPL), the little Sojourner operated on the surface of the planet for 85 days, and proved the technology for the rovers that followed.

In these days of constant online information we’d see every nuance of the operation as it happened, but those of us watching with interest in 1997 missed one of the mission’s dramas. Pathfinder’s lander suffered what is being written up today as the first bug on Mars. When the lander collected Martian weather data, its computer would crash.

Like many other spacecraft, the lander’s computer system ran the real-time OS VxWorks. Of the threads running on the craft, the weather thread was a low priority, while the more important task of servicing its information bus was a high priority one. The weather task would hog the resources, causing the operating system equivalent of an unholy row in our Martian outpost. A priority inversion bug, and one that had been spotted before launch but assigned a low priority.

You can’t walk up to a computer on another planet and swap out a few disks, so the Pathfinder team had to investigate the problem on their Earthbound replica of the lander. The fix involved executing some C code on an interpreter prompt on the spacecraft itself, something that would give most engineers an extremely anxious moment.

The write-up is an interesting read, it’s a translation from a Russian original that is linked within it. If the work of the JPL scientists and engineers interests you, this talk from the recent Hackaday superconference might be of interest.

[via Hacker News]

HFSat and The All-HF Amateur Radio Satellite Transponder

One facet of the diverse pursuit that is amateur radio involves the use of amateur radio satellites. These have a long history stretching back to the years shortly after the first space launches, and have been launched as “piggy-back” craft using spare capacity on government and commercial launches.

Though a diverse range of payloads have been carried by these satellites over the years, the majority of amateur radio satellites have featured transponders working in the VHF and UHF spectrum. Most often their links have used the 2m (144 MHz) and 70cm (430MHz) bands. A few have had downlinks in the 10m (28MHz) band, but this has been as far as they have ventured into the HF spectrum.

A new cubesat designed and built by trainees at the US Naval Academy promises to change all that, because it will feature an all-HF transponder with a 15m (21MHz) uplink and a 10m downlink. To that end it will carry a full size 10m wire dipole antenna. The 30KHz wide transponder is an inverting design intended to cancel out the effects of Doppler shift. In their write-up they provide a fascinating description of many aspects of cubesat design, one which should be of significant interest beyond the world of amateur radio.

If the subject of amateur radio in space interests you, have a look at our series on the matter, first covering the OSCAR satellites, and then our recent feature on its use in manned missions.

[via Southgate ARC]

Basement 3D Printer Builds Are Too Easy. Try Building One on Mars.

[Tony Stark Elon Musk] envisions us sending one million people to Mars in your lifetime. Put aside the huge number or challenges in that goal — we’re going to need a lot of places to live. That’s a much harder problem than colonization where mature trees were already standing, begging to become planks in your one-room hut. Nope, we need to build with what’s already up there, and preferably in a way that prepares structures before their inhabitants arrive. NASA is on it, and by on it, we mean they need you to figure it out as part of their 3D Printed Hab Challenge.

The challenge started with a concept phase last year, awarding $25k to the winning team for a plan to use Martian ice as a building material for igloo-like habs that also filter out radiation. The top 30 entries were pretty interesting so check them out. But now we’re getting down to the nitty-gritty. How would any of these ideas actually be implemented? If you can figure that out, you can score $2M.

Official rules won’t be out until Friday, but we’d love to hear some outrageous theories on how to do this in the comments below. The whole thing reminds us of one of the [Brian Herbert]/[Kevin J. Anderson] Dune prequels where swarms of robot colonists crash-land on planets throughout the universe and immediately start pooping out building materials. Is a robot vanguard the true key to planet colonization, and how soon do you think we can make that happen? We’re still waiting for robot swarms to clean up our oceans. But hey, surely we can do both concurrently.